Sometimes I wonder if it is the nature of the established church to be given back it’s sacramental identity by the ‘outsiders’ around it. Ah, but I’ve given the game away, haven’t I? If I were properly an establishment figure, there would be no outsiders. Only hidden Christians, hidden Anglicans.
So, let me start again: I sometimes wonder if the nature of the established church to loose sight of its sacramental identity, and to have it returned by those on the edges.
And maybe, just maybe, that is what’s happening in the Church of England, through the goad of Glitter Ash.
This year, Glitter Ash hit Facebook consciousness. It arises out of the Metropolitain Community Churches as a way of affirming LGBTI inclusion, and in defiance of a world that has too often told some of God’s children that they are not acceptable as they are. So, instead of the dark black ash, a bit of glitz. A way of saying ‘you are loved.’ (you can read more here)
I have absolutely no issue with the MCC using glitter ash, and I don’t for a moment think it is sacrilege. I simply think it is unnecessary. Ash is glorious enough.
And that is the gift the MCC has given us: the realisation that ash is already glorious. The weight of penitence is so great in the Church of England. It is in our liturgies and in our hymnals, so much so that even our youngest choir member is already encumbered by a language of God that speaks first of sin, and only later (with prompting) of joy. And what could be more penitential than ash?
But glitter ash made me reconsider. Maybe ash isn’t about penitence, but glory. For what could be more glorious than a sign of our humanity — a reminder of our fragility, and the holy hush of wonder when we realise we must not take a moment of this life for granted? I had never thought about ash as a sign of the incarnation before, but that is what it is. And incarnation offers all the glitz we need — no glitter greater.
Is that what people have realised when they seek out Ashes to Go? Are they seeking not penitence, but affirmation of holiness?
I had become so used to the liturgy, to the heavy weight of penitence in the church, that I had seen Ashes to Go as an odd thing. Why on earth should we encourage people to engage in penance on the streets, when we don’t equally give them absolution, communion, blessing? What good does it do to mark people with an ash cross if they don’t stay long enough to hear the words of forgiveness and be transformed by the gifts of God’s love?
But maybe that’s not what’s going on. Maybe they are not engaging in penance, but seeking acceptance. Maybe they have caught just a hint of God’s generous sharing, and are looking for a sign that the glory of God is theirs.
I still think we could do this better with oil than with ash, or with bread and wine, rather than dust. But it’s something. So, I find myself glad for all those people I disagree with today, who have taught me something about a sacramental sign I thought I knew, and who might just be goading the church into a better understanding of God’s glory.